There are a couple of ways to look at this exchange between McCain and Romney over Iraq (which I’ve edited for brevity’s sake). One, John McCain is too thick-headed to understand the difference between the words “public” and “private” and their possible impact on the timetables and benchmarks that are central to the debate. Or two, McCain does know the difference but he’s being wholly dishonest about them in order to score points on Romney. Neither possibility speaks well of McCain at all, and the entire exchange underlines the problem that he has with the base. We don’t trust him because of episodes like this. The fact is, Romney is approaching the issue much like a business leader would and he happens to be right on the facts here. Of course you keep track of data to see if your efforts are on course, but also, of course, you don’t publish the timetables etc or you’re just telling the enemy how long he has to wait. It’s common sense. McCain, for whatever reason, just dug in and defended the lie that he trotted out last weekend in Florida. It’s disgraceful. Every time I start to get used to the idea of McCain as the nominee, he pulls a stunt like this and proves that he can’t be trusted.

On the subject of the Romney December 2006 comments, which is the issue McCain retreats to when the timetables issue becomes problematic for him, it’s worth noting that when Michelle and I went to Baghdad in January 2007, we picked up on an interesting and unexpected phenomenon among the troops in Iraq. Even they weren’t wholly supportive of the surge to a man and woman. Many of the ones with whom we spoke, troops who were on the front lines in Baghdad, were skeptical that a surge in force would make the impact that the war’s supporters hoped. They didn’t favor withdrawal, but like Romney in December 2006, they wanted to know more about how the troops would be used. One of the most common comments we heard was that more bodies won’t do much good if there’s no clear purpose to how and where they’ll be deployed. This was in January 2007; we were there the day President Bush announced the surge. I hardly fault Romney for wanting to hear more detail before he put his name on the line one way or the other on the surge. That was a reasonable reaction by someone whose day job didn’t include daily studies of troop numbers and strategies in Iraq.

Update: I really wanted to see two things tonight. I wanted to see Romney take the fight to McCain and earn the front runner spot. That didn’t happen. Romney came off well but I doubt the fundamentals changed. The other thing I wanted to see was some sign that McCain was ready to be a leader and be a less irritating figure than he has been up to now. That didn’t happen either. His “I led for patriotism, not for profit” line is a slap in the face to business. A slap in the face to business, and from the presumptive nominee of the pro-business party? Who does he think he is? And where does he think his own money came from? It came from his wife’s father, who presumably led for profit, not for patriotism.

His dishonest attack on Romney’s war stance, captured above, just signals that he’s the same old McCain.

I’m now in the position of having come around to like Romney. He’s decent, smart and fair and I think he would make a fine president. And I dislike McCain all over again. He’s a smarmy beltway insider who just lied to everyone who was watching while he smeared a good man, flipped on his own awful legislation and belittled free enterprise. This man wants to lead the party of Reagan?

McCain sure has his work cut out for him at CPAC. I don’t want to say that his mission of making peace with the base is impossible, but I won’t argue that it’s not.